COVINGTON, Ga. - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency apologized to Newton County residents during the ethylene oxide informational meeting, held at the historic courthouse, Tuesday, Aug. 20, for not informing them sooner of the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment results.
The NATA, completed every three years, provided information on potential health risks from breathing in air toxins. The 2014 NATA, completed Aug. 22, 2018, showed several areas with a high cancer risk due to ethylene oxide - Covington was shown to have a total cancer risk greater than a 100 in a million.
Newton County residents were unaware of the 2014 NATA results until the information was published in WebMD article July 19.
Ken Mitchell, U.S. EPA Region 4 Office of Air and Radiation deputy director, told residents the 2014 NATA results were immediately given to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division so further investigation could be conducted. He explained the results were not given to the public because the U.S. EPA and Georgia EPD wanted to ensure the accuracy of the results.
"We probably should have [told you earlier], and I'm sorry we didn't," he said. "For me, it's been a really good learning experience on how and when we should talk to folks on the information we find."
Karen Hays, GA EPD branch chief, told residents that she has heard their concerns and frustrations since the WebMD article was published.
"Your concerns and frustrations are legitimate," she said. "We need to do better, and I hope this is the first step in doing better."
Hays stated that the risk was lower than suggested in the 2014 NATA, but the risk was not as low as it needed to be.
"BD Covington needs to reduce emissions, and they have agreed to do so," she said. "We're working actively to get that done."
The GA EPD announced Aug. 16 that they will collect air samples at each site - BD in Covington and Sterigenics in Smyrna - every six days over the next severals months to test air quality.
The GA EPD has currently taken air samples at its South DeKalb Air Toxics Monitoring Station, which has been released to the public, and will continue collecting air samples at that location. They will also begin monitoring at an unspecified rural Georgia location, away from industries and traffic, and will work their way to the Covington and Smyrna areas.
The Tuesday, Aug. 20 informational meeting included a health panel to inform residents of risks associated with EtO exposures.
Dr. Abby Mutic, Region 4 Southeast Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, informed residents that EtO does not stay within the body long. EtO has a 45 to 60-minute half-life - meaning the time it takes for half of the chemical to leave the body.
"If you want to go and get tested to see what your exposure level is, the likelihood of it being detected is really small," she said.
Mutic stated EtO primarily enters the body through breathing; however, the toxin can also enter the body through the skin. Recently, PEHSU, a network of medical centers that provide medical information on environmental health conditions, has seen people, who have been re-exposed to EtO, show signs of an allergic sensitive. An increase in the risk of cancer is another symptom PEHSU has recently noticed from people exposed to EtO.
"We understand that the likelihood of those who have experienced a health outcome is probably related to the concentration," she said. "As the concentration increases, the likelihood of having a health outcome increases."
Dr. Mark Johnson, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry regional director, stated that ATSDR has gathered data from other areas close to a sterilization facility. He specified that ATSDR has not gathered information from the Covington area.
"We don't expect to see levels that would cause any other health effects, such as neurological or reproductive," he said. "We're most concerned about cancer risk. That's because ethylene oxide is a mutagen. It causes DNA damage."
The body does naturally produce EtO, but "those are very very low levels," he said.
Newton County residents believe Becton Dickinson, or BD, a medical technology company that sterilizes medical equipment with EtO, has poisoned the air and caused the high cancer risk in the Covington area. The GA EPD has confirmed BD is located in an area with a potential high risk in cancer, according to a July 25 press release.
On Tuesday, Aug. 20, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp expressed appreciation, via social media, towards Sterigenics for voluntarily agreeing to reduce EtO emissions. He stated that Sterigenics demonstrated "commitment to the local community" and added that BD should reduce emissions as well.
I appreciate @Sterigenics1' willingness to voluntarily agree to a significant reduction in ethylene oxide emissions. This proactive measure demonstrates commitment to the local community & helps to restore public confidence. Now, @BDandCo should do the same. 2/3 #gapol— Governor Brian P. Kemp (@GovKemp) August 20, 2019
A couple hours later, BD said, in a press release, that "the company will voluntarily further reduce emissions through an $8 million investment in BD's world-class sterilization operations in Covington and Madison."
BD also stated that the company plans to have an independent company validate current emissions. As of Aug. 21, BD self-reported that the facility destructs 99.95% of emissions, which exceeds the 99% required by law.
The GA EPD previously stated, in a July 25 press release, that Sterigenics and BD "are in compliance with current federal requirements for control of ethylene oxide emissions," which is why BD is still currently operating.
Montrose Environmental, hired by the City of Covington, will also test air quality, confirmed via social media Monday, Aug. 19. Montrose Environmental will place 10 canisters around Covington, some in close range to BD. Results are expected in about eight weeks, and Montrose Environmental officials will share the results during a future city council meeting.
The GA EPD expects to have their air quality results available to the public by November, according to Dika Kuoh, GA EPD assistant branch chief.